Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

1. Chasing the Army

Liverpool, Canada Dock, late November 1899. British troops are embarking for South Africa. A father in the watching crowd is chatting to those near him; he’s heart-broken his son’s going, he says, but he’s a good boy and it’ll make a man of him. Two soldiers pass dragging a third too drunk to walk. Someone says amid the laughter, ‘That’s ‘is son,’im that’s being carried.’ The father gazes in horror after his boy and walks away in silence. A woman sees her man marching past and calls, ‘’Ere, Jim, I’m ‘ere!’ but Jim’s searching the crowd on the wrong side and the cheering and blare of the band drown his girl’s voice. A man on the ship catches sight of his woman on shore and dives overboard. She helps him out of the water and and they cling together His mates on deck give three cheers. Then the man is collared and marched back, filthy but glorious.

Watching the commotion is a pale, slender young man.(3)

Alexander Bell Filson Young is twenty-three. He has been working for two years now as a freelance journalist in Manchester, after leaving school at fifteen to be articled to a chartered accountant and then, for just over a year, to be one of the first students at the Royal Manchester College of Music.

A few weeks later the Manchester Guardian sends Filson to Southampton to meet the first ship bringing the wounded home. While he’s there a telegram from the editor, C.P.Scott, reaches him, offering him a chance to go to South Africa himself. The Guardian already has one correspondent there, the experienced J.B.Atkins, and Scott’s telegram to Filson is the culmination of a train of events that started just before Christmas. After unexpected difficulties in Natal, the British had opened a new front to the west and the Guardian’s general manager in Manchester, G.B.Dibblee, had advised the editor, C.P.Scott, to send Filson to cover it.(4) It was a matter of pride for the Guardian not to depend on the correspondents of other papers for its war reportage; it had won a reputation for independence in this respect as early as the Franco-Prussian war thirty years before.

The Afrikaner population of South Africa were and are descendants of white colonists of Dutch and Huguenot origin who first settled in South Africa in the seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century they came increasingly into conflict with British, who had colonized the coastal areas of the Cape and Natal, and who called them Boers (the Dutch word for ‘farmers’).(5) When the Boers (I shall continue to use the word since it was universal among English speakers in 1900) established two small republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, in which British settlers had no voting rights, and – a key factor – discovered gold in the Transvaal, the British government (Conservative) decided to annexe the two Boer republics to safeguard British commercial and political interests in the area. The interests of the black population were not considered, both Boers and British regarding them as at best a cheap source of labour. When Britain moved to occupy the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in late 1899, the Boers retaliated by besieging three British frontier towns: Ladysmith in the east, Kimberley in the west and Mafeking in the north. Britain needed a quick victory to save face, though no one imagined a British army could ever be seriously held up by the part-time militias of two small and insignificant territories. All the major British papers supported the war except the Liberal Manchester Guardian, which accused the Conservatives of bullying for economic gain. In the House of Commons, C.P.Scott kept a sharp eye on the machinations of Lord Salisbury’s government.

The Boers launched their main thrust in the east, and in October 1899 Scott sent his senior war correspondent J.B.Atkins (6) to cover the campaign of General Sir Redvers Buller, whose job was to march across Natal and relieve Ladysmith. When Buller, astonishingly, ran into serious difficulties, the government decided high-profile action was needed, and in January 1900 sent out the most famous British soldier of the day, Lord Roberts, to take command. Roberts’s large force included, as his chief of staff, another famous name in the victor of Omdurman, Lord Kitchener. With Buller bogged down short of Ladysmith in the east, Roberts aimed to relieve the pressure on him by opening a new front in the west, and pushed north from Cape Town towards Kimberley, Bloemfontein (capital of the Orange Free State) and Mafeking. Filson’s job was to cover Roberts’s campaign while Atkins looked after the eastern front. Two correspondents in South Africa was a luxury few papers could afford, and only the Times had more.

Filson sailed for South Africa on 20 January 1900 in the liner Kinfauns Castle, just missing the wedding of his elder brother Tom, in Salford five days later, to the daughter of a member of their father’s congregation, R.P.Hewit, a well-off calico printer from Stirling who lived at the other end of the same street. Passing through London en route to South Africa, Filson called on Jessie Bell, a cousin of his mother’s and a relative by marriage of the Scotts and Taylors, the Guardian‘s great interconnected dynastic families, and would have been gratified to know that Mrs Bell promptly reported his visit to the paper’s owner and former editor J.E.Taylor (who now lived in France) and that Taylor mentioned the matter in his next letter to Scott (7).

Also on his way to South Africa in the liner Kinfauns Castle was another distant relative of the Youngs in Rudyard Kipling, at 34 already famous for his stories and his enthusiasm for the British Empire. Kipling and his American wife Carrie, who was with him on the voyage [any mention in Carrie's diary or letters? Check say 20 Jan to 20 Feb 1900], had recently lost a much-loved

six-year-old daughter while Kipling himself had been gravely ill with double pneumonia (8). It must have been during this sixteen-day voyage that Filson helped Kipling set his poem ‘The Anchor Song’ to music (perhaps they performed it at a ship’s concert). Kipling certainly told Filson all about the ‘agonies, shames, delays, rages, chills, parboilings, road-walkings, water-drawings, burns and starvations’ of his early days as a motorist, while Filson, not yet himself addicted to cars, laughed unsympathetically.(9)

The Kinfauns Castle docked at Cape Town on February 5 1900. Kipling, darling of Conservative imperialists, was welcome in South Africa, but for the unknown Filson it was a different story. Roberts had decided there were already too many correspondents at the front, and had no intention of granting passes to any more. So Filson was forced to spend more than a week ‘kicking his heels’ in Cape Town, making the best use he could of the time by interviewing potential (black) servants, trying out horses and touring hospitals and prisoner-of-war camps in search of copy. One day he walked with Kipling to an infantry camp at Sea Point:

As we neared the camp we overtook a private carrying in his hand a large pair of boots. Mr Rudyard Kipling asked if we were on the right road, and the man said –

‘Yes; are yer goin’ there? Then yer can tike these boots. I ‘av to entrine at twelve o’clock, and I ain’t goin’ ter miss it fer no blessed boots. ‘Ere, tike ‘old,’ he continued, thrusting the boots into Mr Kipling’s hand, ‘and give ‘em to Private Dickson, B Company; and mind, if yer cawn’t find ‘im, jest tike ‘em back ter Williams, opposite the White ‘Orse.’

Mr Kipling promised faithfully, and gave a receipt, which he signed; but the man did not notice the name.

‘My friend,’ said Mr Kipling, ‘you’ll get your head chaffed off when you get back to the guard-room.’

‘What for?’ vainly asked the man, and departed, while we continued our way towards the camp.

No sooner were we inside the railings than Mr Kipling was accosted by a military policeman.

‘What are you doing here? You must get out of here, you know, sharp!’

‘I’m taking these boots to Private Dickson,’ said Mr Kipling.

‘Well, you ought to take them to the guard tent, and not go wandering about the camp like this. Out of it, now!’

Now Mr Kipling had a pass from the Commander-in-Chief to go wherever he pleased in South Africa, and, besides that, he is Rudyard Kipling, whom private soldiers call their brother and father; so the situation was amusing.

Just then a police sergeant rode up and said, ‘Please, sir, I lived ten years with the man as you get your tobacco from in Brighton; anything I can do for you?’

‘Yes,’ said Mr Kipling, ‘I want this man taken away and killed!’

The youth was much confused, but he had done his duty; so Private Dickson had his boots, and great was the mirth and loud the cheering about the tents of B Company.(10)

Back in Cape Town Filson managed to catch the Press Censor on his own at the Post Office and ‘stand over him’ while he wrote a long telegram to Roberts pleading Filson’s case. This had the desired effect and Filson set out for the front. A sixty-hour train journey took him to Roberts’s camp on the Modder (Afrikaans for ‘mud’) River near Kimberley, but when he arrived on February 17, he found that Roberts had moved his HQ on to Jacobsdal and that there was even less news of what was happening than there had been in Cape Town. But Leo Amery was there in his capacity as co-ordinator of the? five Times correspondents in South Africa, and after two days he and Filson were joined by another Times man, a Major A.W.A.Pollock.(11)

Amery now set off to join Roberts at Jacobsdal, followed by Pollock and Filson with two horses which they named Kruger and Steyn after the presidents of the two Boer republics. Pollock and Filson now joined forces in what they were to call their ‘moving home’, a horse-drawn covered waggon of the type known as a Cape cart, which they shared for the rest of Filson’s stay in South Africa (nearly four months). Pollock had served in the British South Africa campaigns of 1877-79, and at 46 was twice Filson’s age. In the books each later wrote on his 1900 experiences they both emphasize the pleasure they found in each other’s company and, although he doesn’t acknowledge it, the inexperienced and headstrong Filson was lucky to have the steadying influence of the older man always at hand.

There was little to interest Filson at Jacobsdal apart from a General Wavell (12) who described how he had captured the small town four days earlier. Filson then ‘jumped a train’ and went to have a look at Kimberley which had recently been relieved by Lord Methuen.(13) Returning to the Modder camp, he went down with a fever and lay in a tent in which the temperature reached nearly 50°C (130°F), with sandstorms covering everyone and everything up to four times an hour. Fever was the greatest killer of the British during the Boer war, and Filson was lucky at this point to come under the care of an able surgeon, G.Lenthal Cheatle, who was struggling to build and maintain an adequate camp hospital.(14) But it was a bad week for a correspondent to be ill as he missed action on the 27th when Kitchener defeated a Boer force at nearby Paardeberg and captured one of the Boers’ senior commanders, Piet Cronje. For this Kitchener got great credit – too much, in the opinion of Filson, who thought his victory easy and fruitless. He had a higher opinion of Methuen whom he felt had been unjustly criticized for a defeat some time earlier at Magersfontein.

Meanwhile in England, Scott was getting restive. Why it was taking Filson so long to report back from the front? The fact was that, in addition to his other problems, Filson was learning that a correspondent’s copy is useless if he can’t get it back to his paper. It may not be easy for us today in the age of satellites, e-mail and mobile phones to grasp just how difficult long-distance communications were a century ago. Planes and motor transport did not yet exist, and in South Africa there were no telephones and only severely limited railway connections. It took a month for a letter posted in South Africa to reach England, so news had to go by telegram. And if you wanted to send a telegram from the front, you had first to get your copy to base camp at Modder, a distance varying from about thirty to a hundred miles. A ‘military wire’ from the front did exist, but the army naturally ran this first and foremost for their own benefit. All correspondents were at the mercy of the Press Censor, Lord Stanley, who had decreed that only twelve papers and agencies might use the military wire, and that none of them should send more than between ten and fifty words a day. The Guardian was not even one of the favoured twelve. The only other way to get news from the front to base camp was to have your own private team of horses and dispatch riders, far too expensive for a single correspondent. In any case, at Modder there were no horses or riders to be found.

Recovering from his fever, Filson reached Roberts’s HQ at Paardeberg on February 28th, the day after Cronje surrendered to Kitchener. He was in time to see the captured Boer camp and 4000 prisoners, and managed to make an agreement with a correspondent he found there (Perceval Landon of the Times) to share the cost of dispatch riders. They needed eight horses and would have to carry forage for the whole march; Filson was able to contribute his locally recruited personal servant as one of the riders. Later he managed to persuade Landon to use his influence to get Stanley to allow him a few daily words over the wire, but only on condition he ‘pooled’ what he wanted to say with Landon and the correspondents of one or two other papers to make up one longer message rather than several short ones. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the Guardian got no exclusive stories from the front.

In the first week of March Filson saw action in an almost bloodless engagement in which Roberts ousted the Boers from their position at Osfontein.(15) From here he advanced with the 30,000-strong army and on March 10 came under fire for the first time in a sharp engagement at Driefontein, after which the Boers again retreated before the British advance and President Steyn of the Orange Free State abandoned his capital, Bloemfontein. At Driefontein Filson ended up on foot when his little mare was wounded, while the ‘moving home’ broke down when the horse Kruger

had a bad attack of the gripes and was dosed by Pollock with half a bottle of chlorodyne in a hot drink. On the morning of the 13th Pollock and Filson came on a farm flying the British flag, where they and were given a delicious breakfast by the resident settler. Later the same day the army entered Bloemfontein to the cheers of the small local British community. Many years later Filson recalled that the first film he ever saw had shown:

the entry of Lord Roberts and his staff into Bloemfontein on the occasion of its formal surrender to the British. It was extraordinary to look at this moving procession of

individuals all well known to me, and among whom I myself actually had a place. [...] The war correspondents were riding immediately behind the personal staff. I [...] recognized the officers and horses in the rank immediately before me. I held my breath; my horse’s head and neck appeared in the picture – and then the film came to an end!(16)

Stifled by the unaccustomed comfort of sleeping between sheets with a roof over his head, Filson decided after six days to leave Bloemfontein and go with Pollock and the ‘moving home’ to Kimberley. At Abraham’s Kraal they were intercepted by two dozen Boers who had come to bury comrades killed at Driefontein. Fortunately the Boers were friendly, even when Filson, in the course of conversation, mentioned ‘incidentally’ to one of them that he ‘supposed he knew that anyone who interfered with peaceful Englishmen would be hanged’. At the same time, Filson was shocked to see the damage that had been done to Boer farms along the army’s route. It was impossible to tell whether this had been done by British or ‘Colonial’ soldiers or – as

white people preferred to think – by rampaging ‘kaffirs’ (blacks).


3. Filson Young’s report was published in the Manchester Guardian on 2 Dec 1899

4. The way the Manchester Guardian was run during this period was unusual. Scott, though very much a hands-on editor, was also Liberal M.P for Leigh (Lancashire), and consequently had to spend much of his time at Westminster, leaving Dibblee in charge of the day-to-day running of the paper in Manchester. Not an ideal arrangement, especially as Dibblee was pro-war and Scott anti-war, and Dibblee had already in fact resigned as manager but was continuing temporarily in the job. So it came about that Dibblee remained manager of the M.G. throughout the whole of the Boer war, committed to a declining paper with whose views he was out of sympathy. - Ayerst Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper (1971), 304.

5. The Dutch word for ‘farmers’. I shall continue to use this now archaic term, since it was universal among English-speakers at the time.

6. John Black Atkins (1871-1954), though only five years Filson’s senior, had already served the Guardian as war correspondent in a short war between Greece and Turkey in 1897 and with the Americans in their war against Spain in Cuba in 1898. His The Relief of Ladysmith is a companion volume to Filson’s The Relief of Mafeking, both published within a few months of the events they describe.

7. J.E.Taylor from Menton, France, to C.P.Scott, 30 Jan 1900. John Edward Taylor (1830-1905) owned the Manchester Guardian for over fifty years and edited it from 1861 to 1871; his father, also John Edward Taylor, had founded the paper (in 1821) and his mother was a Scott. His cousin Charles Prestwich Scott (1846-1932) edited the M.G. for nearly sixty years (1872-1929) and also became its owner on the death of the younger Taylor.

8. Kipling and Carrie, an ill-matched and basically unhappy couple (he the joker and she the responsible but charmless wife) were trying to recover from a horrendous year in which their beloved eldest child Josephine had died of a fever at the age of six at a time when both their other children were also ill and Kipling himself was at death’s door with double pneumonia. See Nicholson The Hated Wife (2001), especially 49-56.

9. Letter from Rudyard Kipling to FY, April 1904, quoted by FY in The Complete Motorist (1904), 285.

10. FY The Relief of Mafeking (1900) 65-67. This story seems not so much an example of Kipling being matey with common soldiers, as taking advantage of his privileged status to be cruel. In his review of David Gilmour’s Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (London Review of Books 25 April 2002) Bernard Porter quotes a delightful story from one of Gilmour’s footnotes: The ticket collector at Etchingham station sees Kipling trying to jump a queue and reproves him. “Do you realise who I am?” Kipling asks, indignantly. “I know who you are, Mr Rudyard bloody Kipling,” comes the retort, “and you can bloody well take your place in the queue like everybody else.” ‘No wonder he hated democracy,’ comments Porter.

11. Leo S. Amery (1873-1955, jounalist, historian of the Boer War and Conservative politician with a special interest in the Empire. He held several ministerial posts in the 1920s, and again during the Second World War.

12. Arthur W.A.Pollock (1853-1923) went on to command an infantry battalion on the Western Front, despite his age, at the battle of Loos in 1915. He was invalided home with gas poisoning but served in France again from 1917 to 1919.

13. The much-criticised but popular Lieutenant-General Paul Sanford Methuen, Baron Methuen (1845-1932) served in South Africa throughout the Boer War, later returning as commander-in-chief (1908-12) and being promoted to Field Marshal.

14. George Lenthal Cheatle (1865-1951) was decorated for his services as Consulting Surgeon to H.M.Forces in South Africa. He went on to a distinguished career as a surgeon at King’s College London and was knighted in 1918.

15. This and most of the names in this section are the names of farms built near watering-holes.

16. Radio Times, 30 November 1934.

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